A co-worker had mentioned that I needed to visit the French Market, as it was a fascinating place that offered many splendid and unique wares. So, my little stroller-bound companion and I ventured into the Market and took a visual sampling of what could be found there. The multinational vendors sold bananas and pineapples and peppers and bottles of Tabasco sauce and shirts and handbags and incense trays and handmade jewelry and spices and cookbooks and travel-books and novels and dresses and carven statues of African fertility gods and figures of entwined, copulating threesomes and cigarette lighter cases and leather hats and neon lights of any someone’s favorite malt beverage and rainbow colored snow-cones and preserved, baby alligator skulls and who knows what else, maybe even some pickled or barbecued monkey feet. All in all, it was interesting and there were probably some things for sale in the French Market that we couldn’t have purchased at the local shopping mall…and the crush of multicolored tourists and visitors and locals and vendors were generally polite as they made way for our stroller and my sweaty-browed self.
Aside from visiting the downtown area of New Orleans, specifically, the French Quarter and its immediate surroundings, the Little One and I also cruised through most of the central and eastern parts of the city. We went up and down the inner city byways, and drove down the neighborhood roads that connected the eastern and central parts of the city; the main avenues, and streets, and roads, and paved corridors, and highways and bridges, and every little bit of roadway that we could find that we had not yet traversed. And in our meanderings through the city, I couldn’t but help noticing the peoples, yes peoples, that I saw along the streets and standing upon the corners and walking into and out of the various homes and hang-outs and stores and businesses that we passed. I don’t know if my companion took much notice of what and whom we passed, aside from the overhanging trees and signs that may have had enough elevation to enter his line of sight from his perch in that rear-facing car seat, but I was near amazed with the numbers of variously hued black and brown people that we encountered. Not only while driving through the downtown area, but in the rest of the city as well. I can’t remember much from when I lived in South Carolina as a child, at least not in this area of thought, but I’m sure that if I did, my memories would include a vast population of our countrymen and women of color; so I must say that, in what I can properly arrange as my clearest memory, this excursion into New Orleans proper exposed me to more black people than I have ever been exposed to in my lifetime. It is just that, aside from my forays into South Phoenix in my days as a disease investigator with the county health department, I’ve not felt so ‘white’ before. In every store I entered during our five-day stay in New Orleans, I was in the distinct minority. Whether it was in the Walgreens, Pizza Hut, the Save-Co grocery store, Wal-Mart, or the Exxon and other sundry filling stations, there were vastly more people of color than there were those of white or fair skin. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was what the shoe feels like on the other foot, so to speak. At any rate, I/we encountered no problems because of my/our whiteness, but I did happen to notice many averted eyes, and when the others’ eyes did meet mine, their faces were more often blank than expressing anything; more to think about, more to contemplate in the weighing of textbook against reality and assessing how things continue to be and are. In receiving those blank looks or veiled glares, if that’s what they were, was I a receptacle for their rage or was it more of a mirroring of what they thought was in my heart? Did the color of my skin mean that I harbored ill against them or thought less of them? Were the years of their collective histories more alive to them than the one white man in front of them who had neither caused nor tolerated their affliction, or was I reading too much into the nothingness or possibilities in their eyes? I don’t know that books could or would reveal to me the truths that lay in the reality of the expressions in those people’s eyes. I don’t know that I could ever be more to them than another white guy who may be as full of the same possibilities as the other ones have been, and without coming to know the individuals whose eyes met mine, the plausibility of them remaining a group of stereotypes became that much easier. They will be as black to me, with all that entails, as I will be white to them, equally, and with the full freight of that meaning. But that wasn’t necessarily so. I knew they were individuals with their personal and collective histories and I knew more than to expect them to embrace me in my whiteness – because I was also aware of the histories and the perceived stereotypes and the afflictions or oppressions that have through repetition become more reality to them than I could possibly imagine – so I know those looks weren’t personal; I just found them interesting, that’s all.
On the last night of our visit to the New Orleans area, my wife and Boogie and I were invited to join my wife’s training-session-colleagues at the house of one of the professors, rather, at the house of ‘the’ professor and guide and mentor and god, none other than C.Z. himself, for a bit of a soiree or social event, dinner, gathering, etc. So we continued on our little trip and ventured into the Metarie Country Club on the completely opposite side of the valley of New Orleans from where our motel was situated. Again, the greenery was nigh unto overwhelming with the castled homes nestled in and among and beneath the cathedral-canopied hollows created by the over-branching and covering and sheltering growth of ancient and massive trees of various and unknown kinds, again with the Spanish moss and ivy and vines and flowers and bushes and rope-like greenery hanging in every which and sundry way.
The beauty of the country club neighborhood was the redeeming feature of the evening as I was nearly lightheaded and shaken with anxiety in my discomfort among the high minds and brows of academia and psychology in the home of the priest-god-professor. I felt like the proverbial guppy in the cerebral sea of monster fishes that swam and mingled around me…while they were kind and gentle in their responses to my “Um, yes, I work in 9-1-1 and police dispatch…and yes, it’s Very Exciting!” While mine was an honorable profession that could speak of a noble calling, had I had that calling, I was wishing that I could detail my previous work experiences as a communicable disease investigator with the health department…I felt that I could then at least ‘appear’ to be educated and smart and intelligent and worthy of their attention and interest (please note that when I was hired, my former job as a disease investigator required nothing more than ‘two years of working with the public,’ but it sounded nearly academic or scientific…please also note that many of my 9-1-1 and dispatch friends, associates, and co-workers are educated and smart and intelligent and worthy…and also have their university degrees…and some have graduate degrees)….and…I had Boogie on my hip for much of the time and he served well as a comfort and as a conversation starter, diversion, release…and I sweated profusely at first and then less as my anxiety heightened and lessened and waxed serious and waned again as people spoke to me and then walked away in their academically modified and pretentious gait of importance or disinterest or whatever socially coiffed manner it was that they had…or maybe didn’t have…as it was I who was so painfully aware of my simple-ness or low-caste-ness…I didn’t and don’t know what I was doing there…and I’m sure they’re all very nice people…just more well-rounded than I was/am and/or might ever be…but I think I liked me and my dog liked me and Boogie liked me and my ascending wife liked me…and the day and the evening were the fourth day…and we drove the many and random miles back to our Motel-6 Studio from the Metarie Country Club and were reminded again of our chosen place in life and loved it and liked it and were happy to be nearing the end of the week and our return westward again into a life and place we knew and so.
The drive homeward was gone and long and wearing upon our senses and minds and bodies and the sights and sensations were dulled somewhat in the passing of miles and moments. The green was still green, but much of the luster had dulled and many of the smells of fecund richness had come to rot and brought their vapors and ill-ease with them. The poverty spoke louder than the hues of the beautiful people and the cracks in the roadway were louder than the new tire flashing could soften…miles upon miles and over-filled garbage cans and gator-hunting tournaments and slave-grave-plantations combined with the distance we were away from our other loved ones and life and our known selves with what and who we were, in and to those lives and loved ones that made us long for those things and people and selves and the miles couldn’t pass quickly enough.
There was no white VW Pasat with its 45 year-old woman trying to control the speed with which we left that eastern destination and we didn’t marvel so at the pastel and dirt colored homes on the southern banks of the grand river with its teeming greenery and life…and our hungers weren’t much abated by the chicken-stuffed fajita pitas and ultimate cheese burgers and onion rings that filled and locked our transported stomachs in our emerald or forest green Lumina that carried us none too swiftly homeward to that metropolis whose buildings and smaller mountains and hills and urban volcanic shit and waste and detritus welcomed us back with arms and highways that comfort in ways that seem absurd in their warm familiarity…those roadside rest-stops, bridges, mileposts, building lights, and bougainvillea…and that much closer.
We were driving home, riding home, passing homeward from the green richness of a strange land with strange people, those maybe in genetic swamps or ponds that have a flesh-taste similar to our own, but so distant and removed from us in our everything that they aren’t and cannot be or become us in our stated selves and kindred somebodies, people we thought about and left behind; we were going home to our other children and their arms and stories and questions and wonderings at what we saw and felt, Boogie and I, as we crossed those twenty six miles over Lake Pontchartrain, and back again, with nothing but water beside and beneath us and the and my wonderment at an oh-shit moment that never came but was looming with each rotation of the tires in those many concrete and elevated miles…our children who regaled us with tales of their own parties and celebrations in our parent-emptied home for the weekend, and police visits and bottle-caps in the backyard grass and other kinds and types of whatnot…our children who called us sobbing in their heartbreak at being interrogated and fired for misconduct when they had done nothing wrong and we were 23 hours away and could do nothing but listen to their sad story and…our children who were adults and kids who welcomed us from our travels and things seen and felt in lands not ours nor theirs…and we were home again among those things and people who comfort us when the need for comfort was upon us…after we took a little trip.
September 26, 2009 | Categories: I Was There | Tags: Arizona, cacti, color, descrimination, French market, gators, greenery, history, Lake Ponchartrain, Metarie, New Mexico, New Orleans, plantation, prejudice, Starbucks, Texas, travel, Tucson | 6 Comments